Coronavirus has changed the way industries worldwide are functioning at the moment. It’s not a secret that everything has become virtual, including grocery shopping, live events, working, and, of course, teaching. An online learning platform that we work with, FutureLearn, experienced firsthand the impact of this teaching shift. Global traffic to FutureLearn increased dramatically over the past couple of months – in 2020, traffic doubled in March, compared to February, and continued to grow, increasing by another 74% in April.
In fact, all of the website’s traffic sources grew significantly during March when compared to February, ranging from a “mere” 48% for email, to +200% for social and display ads.
When looking at desktop specifically, organic search and direct traffic are the top two traffic acquisition sources. Direct traffic consistently makes up about 48% of the site’s desktop traffic, followed by organic search, which ranges between 29% and 32% of desktop traffic. However, looking at the site’s desktop traffic growth by marketing channel, we find that direct traffic grew 96% in February and only 48% in March, while organic search increased by 82% MoM.
1. What were the biggest challenges in growing organically pre-Coronavirus? How has COVID-19 impacted your organic growth efforts?
COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown have meant that more people are turning online for their content and experiences. There’s an increased demand for online learning which means that we’ve had to be faster and more agile in our response to learner demand and to help support people through this difficult time. We wanted to help as much as we could, so alongside our usual activities, we worked to open up our portfolio to educate people on Coronavirus and to help schools and universities to continue delivering education.
The challenges have remained roughly the same both before and after, but the speed at which we need to meet them has increased. Right now, a lot of focus is on improving visibility and performance, which has always been the case.
2. How has Similarweb helped guide your strategic marketing decisions? What has been the main ROI of the platform for you?
Similarweb has been a great tool to get a read of different sectors and industries – it’s helped us analyze and benchmark performance across horizontals and verticals, and allowed us to make more informed decisions when catering to different learner types.
We use keyword research to formulate everything from course names through to blog H2 headers – this sort of research is baked into all areas of course creation, so a reliable tool is essential, as are the workspaces we’ve set up to monitor search terms relating to our main strategic areas. We’ve had success in using the category analysis feature to find outreach opportunities as well as to guide our affiliate work, as it adds another layer of discovery on top of the initial research. And, of course, the competitor areas are useful for keeping track of the marketplace as a whole, rather than just our own performance.
There isn’t really a single area that we focus on – different marketing areas require different intelligence.
3. Your site’s recent growth has been dramatic. What helped to propel such fast growth?
We’ve grown across all channels, but organic search traffic has really helped fuel that growth and has boosted other areas, such as direct and email traffic. We already had a well-optimized course portfolio that was suited to people looking to further their professional development, or who were bored in lockdown, and we worked very quickly with partners to respond to existing search trends and predict what people may be looking for next. The research and optimization work I mentioned helped us in the early days, and continuing with the same research methods has meant that we continued to grow.
We were one of the first providers of a course on COVID-19 and a subsequent cluster of COVID-related courses for frontline workers, as well as the general public, and are continuing to create in-demand courses that respond to current events – the fact that people know they can come to us for the latest information has been a key factor in our growth. In addition to portfolio updates, we increased our content production significantly to ensure that we could reach people at different stages of the funnel and offer solutions to at least some of their problems.
4. There looks to be a correlation between your direct and organic growth – how have you been optimizing your SEO strategy to increase brand strength (evidenced by direct growth)? How is Similarweb’s data helping to drive these changes?
A large part of that relationship is that after a learner has enrolled in a course, they’ll typically come back to the site directly to continue with their course or try to find a new one. We’ve also launched a lot of new products and partnerships in response to the lockdown – such as FutureLearn Campus and FutureLearn Schools – which have in turn received coverage and backlinks and have boosted our brand awareness and SERP rankings.
Both of these projects were created with the aim of ensuring that pupils and students don’t fall behind in their education or lose learning opportunities while stuck at home. We also wanted to share our knowledge of online learning and how to create a social, welcoming online environment with teachers and lecturers so that they could create a great experience for their students online. Offering genuine solutions has helped us support the education community and, of course, increase brand strength as a result. The fact that we already had a website with plenty of unique content and a good reputation with Google increased our visibility when search volumes rose within our industry.
Similarweb’s data supported us in identifying gaps in our content and in supplying us with the information we needed to build courses and landing pages that would attract high-quality, engaged traffic. The Keyword Generator Tool is a great timesaver when putting together keyword lists, and ensures that we have a complete view of an area. The thematic traffic breakdowns offered for keyword groups have also been useful for forecasting and prioritizing areas that will have the biggest traffic impact.
5. It looks like “Psychology” and ”Programming” are categories that performed well in March, while “Management” and “Math” did better in February – how have you decided which subjects to promote in your strategy?
Certain areas have been subject to strategic focus before the Coronavirus outbreak and will continue to be afterward, and these areas happen to receive a lot of interest during lockdown because of both public need and private interest. We decided to shift away from the areas that our own analysts predicted had growing interest pre-coronavirus (such as “math”), and concentrated our efforts elsewhere.
For example, in the early days of lockdown, lots of parents were looking for ways to teach from home, and people were generally looking for ways to keep themselves busy without exhausting Netflix. Now that lockdown has been extended, more people are interested in wellbeing and maintaining good mental health.
6. What trends have you seen in online learning in the past few months? Which trends do you predict will be short-lived and which do you think might change online learning for the long term?
We’ve found primarily that people have been much more open to bringing activities online – Zoom Drinks is a great example of that, but I think that some people who may have been reluctant to learn online have now been given the impetus to try it and we’ve maintained our typically high engagement rates as we’ve grown our customer base during these times. Now that these activities have been given a chance, we expect that people will still be open to those online activities when the main draw is convenience and variety, rather than lack of other options.
Proportionately, we’ve seen a lot more traffic to teaching and healthcare courses, reflecting difficulties that teachers and parents are facing moving their classrooms online, and challenges that healthcare professionals currently face when battling Coronavirus and its economic effects. Business and Management courses have grown in popularity as people try to move online or find better ways to manage or lead their teams without face-to-face contact. Given the huge shift to online working and the benefits of it, it feels like this sort of education and management style will need to continue.
More recently, we’ve seen a lot of interest in mindfulness and nutrition courses, as people turn their attention more to wellbeing and ensuring that they can stay physically and mentally healthy for the duration of lockdown. The interest here may abate when people can get back to their usual social and exercise routines, rather than having to find alternative methods of self-care. We can see this both on our own site and within Similarweb’s yearly trend data.
Unfortunately, we will be leaving lockdown into a difficult economic situation and a much more competitive labor market. That suggests that the increase in interest in improving digital skills, management skills, and overall career development will only increase as people have to compete for fewer jobs or reskill for different industries.
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